In an increasingly diverse society, it’s important to recognize different groups, communities, and cultures properly. This can be hard when language is constantly changing — but it changes because we’re often finding better, more accurate ways to represent ourselves.

One of the more recent changes has been the rise of the term BIPOC when referring to historically marginalized races and ethnicities.

It’s understandable if it’s difficult to find a place for BIPOC in your regular vocab. After all, many people were used to POC (person of color) as the go-to acronym to describe this same category of people.

In this guide, we’ll break down where BIPOC comes from, what it means in the context of representation in the United States, and the proper ways to use it.

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Illustration by Wenzdai Figueroa

According to the “New York Times,” the earliest use of the term was found on Twitter in 2013. But most people heard the acronym for the first time during the summer of 2020, when the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement experienced a resurgence of mobilization.

BLM was spurred on by the police murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic’s magnification of racial inequity.

BIPOC is primarily used by organizers and people in activist spaces because it signals solidarity between Black, Indigenous, and people of color.

Organizations that most commonly use the term BIPOC:

BIPOC as a term can feel very broad. It is, essentially, referring to all people who are nonwhite. BIPOC stands for Black, Indigenous, and people of color.

Note. According to Dictionary.com, BIPOC is actually pronounced bahy-pok, not “BY-POCK,” like you might’ve heard before. TMYK

Here’s a look at the current BIPOC makeup of the country:

BBlack AmericansAfricansCarribean/West Indian13.4% of U.S. population
IIndigenous people
Native AmericansAmerican IndiansAlaskan Natives
1.3% of U.S. population
POCEast and South AsiansPacific IslandersNonwhite Latinx/HispanicsArab and MENAAAPI: 5.9% of U.S. populationArab and MENA: ~1% of U.S. population*Latinx: 18.5% of U.S. population**

Some things to consider: The data above takes into consideration designations of race AND ethnicity. It’s important to acknowledge that race is a construct that the United States distinctively struggles to handle, especially when it comes to the nuances of ethnic groups within racial groups.

The United States Census Bureau only designates five races:

  1. Black or African American
  2. white
  3. Native American or Alaskan Natives
  4. Asian and Native Hawaiian
  5. other Pacific Islander

It also allows for people who identify themselves as Latinx and Hispanic to choose if they identify ethnically as such.

These categories do not consider that people who identify as Latinx can be of all races. They also leave Arab and Middle Eastern North African (MENA) people to choose “other.” This is exactly the form of homogenization that many organizers and activists oppose, and one of the reasons the term BIPOC was created.

There are movements for the United States Census Bureau to include more nuance, but until then, these are the categories we work with.

The short answer is “no.” BIPOC has developed as a term to highlight the fact that, in North America, Black and Indigenous folks have a specific relationship to racism and white supremacy. “Black” denotes the hypervisibility of Black people in American society, while “Indigenous” is included to highlight the erasure of Indigenous people.

Many people prefer BIPOC to POC due to the belief that POC has been watered down by white institutions. BIPOC is also more often used by activists and organizers, who are more cognizant of the language that they use. This is why we emphasize that BIPOC is a political term, along with a categorical one.

It’s important to emphasize that BIPOC is a US-centric term, although Canada also has a similar history concerning its Black and Indigenous populations.

If you are outside the United States, it may make more sense to use POC because the emphasis on Black and Indigenous experiences may not be as culturally relevant. If are you referring to a group of people of color who are neither Black nor Indigenous, it also makes more sense to choose POC.

Even though BLM advocates for Black people first, it is composed of peoples of all races. But the BLM movement should be considered a Black organization with a multiracial coalition.

Now that we have an understanding of what BIPOC means and who primarily uses it, let’s talk about the context it should be used in.

Good use of BIPOC: When advocating for diversity

Example. “If we claim to be an inclusive organization, shouldn’t we make it a point to have more BIPOC representation in the room?”

Good use of BIPOC: When having broad conversations about racism

Example. “When learning about racism in America, it’s better to default to BIPOC authors, as opposed to white ones.”

Good use of BIPOC: When describing opportunities of equity

Example. “This is an open call for members of the BIPOC community to apply to this scholarship program.”

Not a good use of BIPOC: When referencing issues that predominantly affect a singular community

Example. If you’re talking about anti-Asian violence that’s directly related to COVID-19, avoid using BIPOC.

Not a good use of BIPOC: When assuming someone’s identity or experience

Example. “I thought that person was a BIPOC when I read their name.”

Not a good use of BIPOC: When generalizing a neighborhood or city

Example. “This is a BIPOC neighborhood.”

Categorizing groups by race and ethnicity can make sense in certain situations, but it’s important to understand that no one group is homogenous.

Think about it this way: Not all people who identify as Latinx will have the same experience. While immigration is often regarded as an issue important to Latinx people, speaking to a group of Puerto Ricans about why immigration is important will inevitably fall flat.

Here’s a rule of thumb: If you’re speaking about a group, but aren’t sure if you should refer to them as BIPOC, POC, or any other, it’s safest to just identify every community that you know is included in the group.

While rattling off a list of racial and ethnic groups can be a mouthful, the erasure that stems from generalizing entire groups of people can be detrimental.

Think about the erasure of Indigenous folks in the United States. Many Indigenous tribes have lost languages, practices, and rituals due to colonization. Why? Because they were not allowed to speak about them.

Many school systems teach that all Indigenous people look and act like “Peter Pan’s” Tiger Lily, living in tepees and constantly belting out war cries. This validates the perception that Native Americans are a people of the past, when, in reality, their communities are multifaceted.

Acknowledging people that make up a racial or ethnic group combats the dehumanization efforts of white supremacy. This is how we can avoid developing harmful stereotypes that justify the mistreatment of BIPOC, which has mental health repercussions.

To feel accepted in society is to feel heard and acknowledged. This is one of the reasons sayings like “representation matters” resounds with many BIPOC.

Often, it’s hard to believe you can do something if there’s never been someone like you in that position. When you don’t see faces that look like yours represented everywhere, it’s hard to know if they even exist outside your sphere.

BIPOC is a way many people are referring to Black, Indigenous and people of color. It’s used to acknowledge the specific ways racism affects Black and Indigenous folks in the United States.

Getting representation right can be difficult. When in doubt, avoid generalizing and be specific about the groups you’re referring to.

It’s OK to make mistakes with your language, but be earnest in owning those mistakes and learning from them. Being corrected doesn’t have to result in further conflict, but it can be an opportunity to continue to foster change.

Gabrielle Smith is a Brooklyn-based poet and writer. She writes about love/sex, mental health conditions, and intersectionality. You can keep up with her on Twitter and Instagram.